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Sundance Festival Directors Put a Premium on Inclusion

Amid the calls for leadership diversity at film festivals, Sundance director John Cooper did something about it: promoting feature programmer Kim Yutani to become the fest’s director of programming in May. Aside from her Asian-American heritage and gender, this appointment makes Sundance the first major film festival with two LGBT leaders. Yutani and Cooper previously worked at Outfest L.A.

“She has incredible taste and an understanding of what festival curation is, as opposed to just a critical eye,” Cooper says of Outfest’s former artistic director. “A kicker was that she knows a lot of the industry around the world. I started getting such great feedback from people outside the U.S. of how much she was respected, especially as we build up our world cinema presence. It just all fell into place.”

“Once Trevor [Groth, the previous director] announced that he was leaving [to join marketing and distribution company 30West], it really made me think: What is the next step in my career?,” Yutani says. “Being director of programming was never necessarily a goal. I was always happy doing what I was doing. But I think that him leaving really pushed me to think about how I want to challenge myself.”

Other fest execs feel optimistic about the appointment. “As members of the LGBTQ community, it’s only natural that John and Kim have brought a heightened awareness of underrepresented voices to their work,” says Robert Kushner, executive director of New York’s LGBTQ film festival NewFest. “I’m sure their partnership will translate into even greater mainstream representation of marginalized voices in film. The industry as a whole will be better off for that.”

Since this is the first Sundance with two out execs running the show, has it been reflected at the fest in any way? “We always program with representation and gender parity in our minds,” Yutani says. “And sometimes it works out that you have a higher representation of women, or not. This year I feel like the process was really organic, and I’m happy about that because it makes it seem like me being in this position means something, but at the same time, I think as a team we are always thinking about gender and who is being represented in our program.”

The 2019 slate includes such LGBTQ-themed films as Rhys Ernst’s Next section coming-of-age drama “Adam” and the U.S. Dramatic Competition lesbian drama “To the Stars.” Among the 61 directors of 56 films playing in four competition categories, 42% are women; 39% are people of color; and 23% are people who identify as LGBTQ.

Those statistics are from a new analysis by Sundance and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, to be discussed at a Jan. 25 panel. Other panels that will explore diversity include the “decolonization” of indie film, transgender storytelling, Native Americans and African-Americans in film, the impact of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the new docuseries “Loyalty: Stories” covering portraits of Muslim military personnel and the world premiere of the New York Times’ Op-Docs series episode “Travelling While Black.”

“Our women’s initiative is ongoing, as is our Native American and Indigenous Film Program,” Cooper notes. But he seems most interested in the results of the Sundance/USC Annenberg analysis. “There’s a survey where they identify what the independent world looks like by gender, race, sexual orientation, the whole thing. I have a sense that there’s lots of work to still be done on financing and getting things into production. That’s something that we don’t control as much at the festival, but we might have more influence on it with the Sundance Institute at large.”

Sundance has long reflected LGBTQ issues, so any changes with two gay execs leading the fest might not be that apparent. But could there be a return of the Queer Lounge, which ran in Park City from 2004-11? “I don’t know,” Cooper jokes. “Every lounge is a queer lounge at Sundance.”

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